With the global economy's rapid expansion over the past two decades, globalization has entered into an extended period of frontier integration. This forces both the West and emerging markets to radically increase the resilience of all these new networks, especially those extending into regions still largely disconnected from globalization's deep embrace, such as Africa and the Middle East.
Very bad actors capable of very bad things tend to congregate in these thinly connected regions. Using guerrilla-style tactics, they can not only frustrate our efforts at postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq but also bring their weapons of system disruption eventually to the very networks and infrastructure that fuel globalization's advance.
The Sept. 11 attacks previewed this new form of system-focused warfare, and since that fateful day, the U.S. military and government have struggled mightily to construct new operational approaches to tame and ultimately marginalize transnational terrorism. What we have lacked most in this agonizingly slow adjustment is a good description of our enemy's emerging tactics - in short, a "red team" expose of our own system vulnerabilities.
That wait is over.
A brilliant new book published by terrorism expert John Robb, titled "Brave New War," hit stores last month with virtually no fanfare. It deserves both significant attention and vigorous debate, in large part because it makes the provocative case that global guerrillas using open-source warfare can defeat nation-states in the same way that Wikipedia has eclipsed the Encyclopedia Britannica: the innovative mind of the many outweighs the dated knowledge of the few.
In an open-source world where research on, and development of, new technologies has become nearly as accessible as the Internet itself, conflicts are increasingly decided by which side learns the fastest. The same Internet that allows your teenager to share his latest video exploits with the world also enables every Osama-wannabe to share his latest terrorist technique, creating what Robb calls the bazaar of violence, where bleeding-edge tactics are rapidly disseminated among globalization's many extremist opponents.
Analogizing the Iraq insurgency to the 1930s Spanish Civil War, which debuted many tactics later employed in World War II, Robb argues we're glimpsing the future of terrorism designed to hollow out weak states on globalization's fringes and keep them in perpetual failure. Developed sufficiently, Robb believes these same tactics can bring advanced economies to their knees.
Here's where Robb's thesis stalls, in my opinion, because it's one thing to keep a weak state in failure but quite another thing to sow systemic chaos in advanced economies. After all, these societies advanced precisely by mastering such network complexity in the first place, typically in response to disasters and scandals that regularly perturbed their systems and thus exposed vulnerabilities.
Thankfully, transnational terrorism remains a fringe activity with virtually no impact on the global economy's performance, which has remained at an unprecedentedly high level since 2001. In contrast, the cumulative impact of system perturbations caused by manmade and natural disasters in recent years has been far more substantial, and arguably far more beneficial in triggering new rule sets designed to prevent future disruptions.
But here is where Robb's warnings are dead-on: Our global connectivity races ahead of our ability to manage all its vulnerabilities. In effect, our rules haven't keep pace, and those gaps and bottlenecks become obvious targets for our enemies in this long war against radical extremism. Hollowing out advanced states may be a tall order, but applying just enough system disruption to torpedo an emerging market gets a whole lot easier.
Think about how much simpler it would be to generate a financial panic in China than, say, the United States. Sure, authoritarian China might be more crudely robust in handling attacks on its less-developed infrastructure, but it has nowhere near our capacity for discounting strategic risk through agile capital markets, a responsive insurance industry or a federally insured banking sector - to name a few examples.
So it's not just a matter of increasing the West's resilience in the face of such global insurgents. We need to spread our robustness and transparency beyond globalization's current frontiers to where the 21st century's version of "savages" await to curtail and ultimately roll back its advance.
In this struggle, John Robb's "Brave New War" serves as a valuable guide to the forces of disconnectedness and the continuously evolving challenge they present.